May 6, 2009. 12:28 pm.
It’s humiliating, being solicited for sex. The range of emotions felt is broad; each and every one verging on crushing the psyche and effectively scrambling any attempt at rationalising what happened—angry, embarrassed, insulted, humiliated, disgusted, objectified, belittled, broken, nauseous.
In large cities, cities where people are comfortable in their anonymity, faceless bodies ducking and weaving among similarly featureless beings, girls are out on the streets. The goods are on display, the purpose is known; it’s all so commonplace. In a city like Reykjavík, a city in which you see the same faces everywhere and ‘know’ everybody, though not really, the sex trade is out of sight unless confronted with it abruptly on a sunny Wednesday afternoon on Vatnsstigur observing the reestablishment of a free shop with a sizeable group of other interested bystanders.
That is how I became painfully aware of the underground sex-trade in this city. A man in his mid-twenties, dark Southern European features and a thick, unsightly unibrow, wearing too-tight high-waisted jeans and a skin-hugging white t-shirt, asked me to be his girlfriend. For ten minutes. Wallet in hand.
Prostitution doesn’t happen out in the open here. “It is underground and can hardly become more underground,” explains Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, director of the Centre for Gender Equality in Akureyri. “It has been very difficult in Iceland to prove that prostitution goes on even though the police know that it goes on and the women working in shelters. We know it’s going on but it has been very difficult to prove.”
In an International Abolitionist Federation (IAF) report on prostitution in the Nordic countries published in 2001, Guðrún Jónsdóttir, Manager of Stígamót, the Icelandic counselling and information centre for survivors of sexual violence, wrote about the role that strip clubs played in Iceland’s hidden sex trade. She wrote: “The public in Iceland believes that the clubs ‘only’ offer striptease, which is absolutely incorrect. What actually happens at the clubs is that the customers buy privacy with the women, which is much closer to prostitution than striptease is. The women’s income comes from the lap dance, and they must compete with one another for the customers. They therefore have to offer something special or ‘extra’ to get some salary. This ‘extra’ is often traditional prostitution.”
And whom, exactly, were the women working in Iceland’s strip clubs? Jónsdóttir explained: “In Iceland with only 270,000 [circa 2001] inhabitants it would be impossible to run such places with Icelandic women. Customers would risk buying their neighbour’s daughters, and to be caught by their families. Therefore the international trafficking in women that stay for a short period of time is essential to secure the anonymity of Icelandic men.”
“There are pimps or traffickers that are here and abroad and they come from agencies in their home countries or a third country and then they’re trafficked to Iceland,” says Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir, a specialist in the field of human trafficking who has written Iceland’s first comprehensive report on the topic, published this month by the Icelandic Red Cross. “We’ve had cases of women who work in hotels; they’re just here for prostitution. They come for a short time, as travellers or tourists, so they’re never really illegal in the country.
“It’s highly organised, that kind of prostitution, it’s highly organised. There’s also been a case in the news of women who have moved here as wives of Icelandic citizens and then they sold them as prostitutes.”
For the report Valdimarsdóttir conducted interviews with 19 specialists on the topic of trafficking in Iceland and abroad, from police officers and government officials to NGO employees. Among other findings, Valdimarsdóttir found that the majority of women being trafficked to Iceland for the sex-trade originated in Eastern Europe, though others come here from South-East Asia, Africa and South America as well.
While there is no quick fix to a problem that is so underground that it is all but invisible —though it does exist—Valdimarsdóttir notes that, aside from legislation and stricter monitoring of the situation, education is a key defence. “It is related to supply and demand. If the buyers know what they’re buying and are aware of the situation of the person they’re buying, it’s less likely they will buy a person. If we stop the buying even a little bit then we stop the trafficking, or trafficking at least decreases if the buyers are aware of it.”
Ástgeirsdóttir would agree with the importance of education in putting a stop to such horrors as human sex trafficking. She emphasises that “we need to do more about educating the public,” specifically men. “He’s the one who can choose; usually the prostitute has no choice.”
Be like a Swede, not like a pimp
Prostitution had always been illegal in Iceland. In fact, it was unheard of on any organised level until the mid-90’s when strip clubs began to pop up, mostly around Reykjavík, providing locations for money to be exchanged for sex in a controlled environment.
Then, in 2007, Alþingi passed a law making the selling and buying of sex legal. However, it remained illegal for a third party (a pimp, for example) to profit from the sale of another person. Coincidentally, at the same time strip shows were banned unless the club received special permission from the local police and a regulating body, such as the health department or safety authorities. Private dances, behind closed doors, were banned regardless of extraneous permissions granted.
The reasoning behind this legislation was to lessen the fear of women in the sex trade from coming forward—the law prior to 2007 stated that women engaging in prostitution would be imprisoned for up to two years—and to combat trafficking, as the illegality of stripping and private dances would make Iceland less appealing for foreign women looking to work in the industry here.
This didn’t stop the trafficking problem and may have even made it worse.
April 21, 2009, parliament passed a law making it illegal to solicit sex, punishable by a fine or a year in prison (two years if the victim is under 18). This is not to say that women offering sex for money are engaging in illegal actions, but those who purchase their services and any third party benefiting from them are acting illegally and subject to appropriate punishment.
The criminalization of the buying (and benefiting from) sex and the decriminalization of selling sex is largely regarded as the Swedish approach to prostitution legislation, as the Scandinavian country was the first to implement the common-sense approach in 1999, and has since seen a vast improvement in the sex-trade situation in the country. Since passing said legislation street prostitution in Stockholm has decreased by two thirds and the trafficking of women and children for the purpose of sex into the country has all but disappeared, with only 200 to 400 people entering Sweden for such purposes annually in comparison to the 15,000 to 17,000 people entering Finland annually for the same purpose.
Another key component of the Swedish approach is the increase in public services available for women looking to escape the sex trade and education for men on the plight of women engaged in sex trafficking. This third prong of the Swedish approach is what Iceland has been lacking according to Valdimarsdóttir. “The government has not been focusing on it, or acknowledged the problem. They haven’t done anything like other European countries, which have support for victims. You have to have a special support; you have to be very strict with security for the women trying to get out.”
The future of the sex-trade in Iceland
Due to the underground, hidden nature of the sex trade and trafficking in Iceland it will be difficult to monitor the success rate of the adoption of the Swedish approach on the island. According to Valdimarsdóttir “we don’t have the visual so we don’t know about the effects of legislation. I’m not sure if that will have the same affect in Iceland [as it has had in Sweden].”
Still, she is optimistic that the country is on the right track. “Here they have been doing so little compared to other countries but it’s starting to move forward slightly with the new action plan, so at least they’ve chosen their way.”
While she has no definite plans to conduct another study following up on the situation of human trafficking and prostitution in Iceland after this legislation has been in effect for an adequate period of time in order to see a change, Valdimarsdóttir does not rule it out. “I think it’s a very current issue and I think it’s very important to take this problem seriously. Research and reports are a tool to help people who are in special conditions, conditions that are not acceptable, and we have to take that very seriously on a global scale.”